The First Time Humans Orbited the Moon

Daniel Hautzinger
The iconic Earthrise photo from Apollo 8. Photo: NASA
Apollo 8 was the first crewed spacecraft to orbit the moon, and also gave us this iconic image of the Earth rising. Photo: NASA

NOVA: Apollo’s Daring Mission airs Wednesday, December 26 at 9:00 pm.

Christmas Eve, 1968: almost one in three people alive on Earth sit rapt in front of televisions as three voices read out the first verses of the Bible and a series of indistinct, grainy, black-and-white, but utterly astounding images flicker across the screen. One billion people were seeing the moon, live, from closer than any person had ever been, as the Apollo 8 mission orbited it for the eighth of ten times. No manned spacecraft had orbited the moon before, or even left Earth orbit, and now a third of the world’s population was seeing what three ultimate pioneers were seeing. Three days later, on December 27, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders landed safely in the Pacific Ocean. A week after that, they were named TIME’s Men of the Year.

To relive some of the excitement of Apollo 8 on its 50th anniversary, you can watch a new NOVA episode on December 26 about the epochal mission and its challenges featuring the engineers and astronauts involved. And Chicagoans can travel back to that earth-changing time at the Museum of Science and Industry, where the spacecraft’s command module has been housed since 1971 along with Borman’s space suit, and where there is a recreation of a midcentury modern living room – complete with aluminum Christmas tree – typical of one in which many American families would have watched the moon broadcast in 1968. (It is on display through January 6.)

Apollo 8 astronauts Jim Lovell, Bill Anders, and Frank Borman outside a simulator in November 1968. Photo: NASAThe Apollo 8 astronauts, seen here outside a simulator in November of 1968, were named TIME's Men of the Year. Photo: NASA

The Museum of Science and Industry was also the site of a reunion of the three astronauts this October for a TIME article about the anniversary. The 90-year-olds Borman and Lovell joined the 85-year-old Anders for a photograph and reminiscences, including about which of them decided to read the first ten verses of Genesis during the broadcast (apparently it was a collective decision) and how an iconic image of the Earth rising came about (Anders decided to shoot it). That photo of our beautiful, marble-like planet has been credited with inspiring the environmental movement – one photographer called it “the most influential environmental photograph ever taken.”

Awesome though the achievements and images of Apollo 8 were, within seven months it would be surpassed by an even more incredible event. On July 20, 1969, humans would land on the moon.

Find Chicago Tonight's coverage of the 50th anniversary of Apollo 8 here, and watch a preview of NOVA: Apollo's Daring Mission: